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A Finals Format Proposal

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A Daily Babble Production

With the Celtics in the Finals (repeat: Celtics in the Finals!), it's only a matter of time now before the requisite discussion about series format comes up.  Since we're still enjoying the delirium of simply being in the Finals and remaining in need of another day or two before we're ready to start breaking down the basketball end of Celtics-Lakers, the time seems right for some wishful thinking about the way the NBA Finals work.

Quick refresher: While the rest of the playoffs are played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Finals shift to 2-3-2, with the Celtics hosting games 1, 2, 6 and 7 and traveling to Los Angeles for 3, 4 and 5.

So far as firing the opening salvo, here we go: We'll buy some of the claims of the upside of the 2-3-2, but we'll nonetheless continue to harbor healthy dislike for it.

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The critical goal of the 2-3-2 format seems to be limiting cross-country travel in the only series of the playoffs that involves teams from both conferences.  In addition, once a series gets to a sixth game, it's a nice perk for the higher-ranked team to have each of the last two games at home.

Of course, there are a few problems here.  The 'once the series is going six games' issue is just as much of a curse as it is a blessing because of the possibility that the higher seed will be coming home on the brink of elimination.  The set-up for the rest of the playoffs involves the base assumption that in a series of closely matched teams, home-court may be a major difference-maker, and thus the other rounds are set up for the higher seed to win the series if all goes 'as expected' -- meaning that each team wins its home games.  The upper seed gets the first two games, the traditionally biggest swing game (five) and the decisive game.  Makes perfect sense: Regular season performance has earned the team an extra home game, and if it take care of business on their home floor, it will never trail in the series.  Indeed, it is true that only two teams (the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat) have swept the middle three games at home, but it seems counterintuitive for the league to use any set-up that allows for the reasonable expectation in a competitive series (as the Finals must expected to be) that the team with homecourt advantage will go into Game 6 with its back against the wall and no margin for error.

The idea that the travel issue is great enough to circumvent the spirit of the set-up of competition is suspect as well.  Though fuel certainly costs plenty of money, we're talking about a total of one extra trip in a series that goes the distance, and it's nearly impossible to imagine that the teams don't have the money to shell out on that account.

Further, part of the idea of reducing travel is to allow the players to be as rested and fresh as possible for these games.  Finals games are only played on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and, interestingly enough, since this series starts on a Thursday, the only two-day breaks will be between games 1 and 2 and games 4 and 5.  On both of those occasions, of course, there will be no travel involved, and the players will have to proceed with just one day of rest between games 2 and 3 and games 5 and 6, when they will be flying from Boston to Los Angeles and vice versa.  Doesn't make much sense.

All that said, it's worth noting that far more of the uproar about the Finals in recent years seems to have been made by us fans rather than by the players and organizations themselves, and I have no knowledge of the league having reviewed the issue of late.  As was mentioned above, the home team taking the middle three has only happened twice in more than two decades.  So perhaps the 2-3-2 isn't as wholly evil as it is being portrayed in this space.

To that end, I propose the following experiment (as peddled in the forum threads early in the post-season): At the beginning of the Finals each year, the team with homecourt advantage should have the choice to select series format.  The team would only be given 24 hours to decide after clinching its berth, so as to allow ticket sales to go on without delay.  It would be an intriguing empirical look at what the players and coaches themselves actually prefer, and it would be a fair perk for the Finals team that had experienced the greater regular season success.  Wouldn't mess with the television schedules, wouldn't seem to cost the league any revenue, but it would give teams the chance to play in their preferred format.  Any takers?

Okay, Finals format rant officially ends in 3, 2, 1...now.  Back to being thrilled just to be here.  Go green!